What if You Played Music and Nobody Listened?


You’ve heard street buskers, musicians in the subway. Some are pretty good, some not.

Do you stop and listen? Do you give money?

What would you do—honestly—if you encountered a ringer? Say, a truly world-class musician, playing world-class music, using a world-class instrument?

What would you do? How much money would you throw in the violin case? How long would you listen?

Worse yet—would you recognize the quality at all?

Of course you would—after all, you read this blog. But how about the rest of the great unwashed? How would they behave?

That was the experiment, conducted in Washington, DC’s L’Enfant Plaza subway station on January 12 of this year, and brilliantly reported on in the Washington Post. Treat yourself to some great writing at the Post from April 10.

The musician was virtuouso Joshua Bell, playing on his 1713 Stradivarius some of the great classical repertoire of Bach, Schubert, and others. In 43 minutes, 1097 people passed, videotaped, most on their way to mid-level bureaucratic jobs in the Federal Government.

Write down your prediction now: how many will stop? How much money will be left?

Leonard Slatkin, musical director of the National Symphony, braved a prediction: maybe 75 to 100 will stop to listen, and in all contribute about $150.

What do you think the results were?

One person recognized Bell. About half a dozen—including a prescient three-year old—stopped to listen. Total take—$32.16, including a $20 gift by one person.

What if you play the best music there is, and nobody listens? What does it mean?

On reflection, it can mean an awful lot of things.

  • It could be about the audience. Maybe bureaucrats are hopelessly mundane. Maybe they’d dig it in Paris; maybe even New York. Yeah, maybe.
  • It could be that classical music is just dead these days—Fifty Cent or Mick Jagger could’ve stopped more than a dozen, don’t you think?
  • It could be that the experts on quality are just full of it—that there clearly is no such thing as innate “quality” in art, that art is only subjectively experienced.
  • It could be we’ve been conditioned by context: several people passed by talking louder in their cellphones, one didn’t even recall hearing the music he’d heart 4-feet away a few minutes later—he had been listening to his iPod. May’be we simply do not notice world-class quality as such if we experience it in a subway.
  • It could be our taste in art has been diminished by the relentless least-common-denominator materialistic blah of our materialistic culture.
  • Or—it could be that our entire sensibility about all kinds of art has been bludgeoned into submission by, fill in your favorite cultural demon.

I really don’t know. But I suspect the answer is kind of important.

So—what do you think?